They say that when you are doing something so much that it interferes with your other activities in life, the relationship you have with that activity may well be unhealthy. It might even be an addiction. In that spirit, I would like to talk about the videogame known as World Of Warcraft.
World Of Warcraft had been in general release for about two or three years when I started to play it on my old DVD-copying machine. Whilst at a Dick Smith electronics store, I politely enquired of one of the counter staff what this game that one could buy a demo disc of for a couple of dollars was about. It had a number of characteristics that I find favourable in a game that I spend large amounts of time playing.
For one thing, it allowed players to assume the role of a hero in a world where one fought monsters, and gained experience in the face of victory. A selling point that made me umm and ahh a bit was the ability to play with groups of people from all over the world. In fact it is largely for that reason that I have continued to play in spite of how empty and unfulfilled my life seems to feel at times as a result. More on that anon. Probably the biggest selling point for me, however, was the ability to play a Dwarf. In fact, pretty much as soon as the friendly salesman at Dick Smith told me “you can play as a Dwarf”, I said “sold!”.
Now, one thing I wish that I had been told or warned about in advance is that playing World Of Warcraft is a bit like playing a real-world sport. Except unlike real-world sport cultures, new players are treated in a manner so very narcissistic and hostile that when Blizzard‘s publicists make claims to the effect of having more than X million players (at the time I started, about 11 million if I remember correctly), it is difficult to not be cynical. When you come right down to it, you tend to find yourself a circle of maybe two or three dozen people that you play regularly with, a group that is in constant flux, and often joins you in commenting on the narcissism, stupidity, selfishness, or occasionally goodness of other players from outside of the group that one happens to meet.
A matter of months after I first purchased the full edition of the game and started playing as a regular player, the first of what will soon be four expansions was released. This expansion, titled The Burning Crusade, took the player to a world that was one part poor Heinlein adaptation and two parts bad acid trip. This is also the point where I started to notice some of the serious flaws in the game’s design.
I am going to just state this simply and plainly rather than go over it in excessive detail because I do not believe Blizzard is ever going to address real problems with anything they have made. In fact, there is a joke among many players that when an element of the game is so unworkable and annoying that it severely diminishes overall enjoyment of the game, it is “working as intended”, to quote what Blizzard staffers usually say. It was about this time that I literally stopped playing, and remained not playing for the best part of a year.
The only reason I came back was because I was reading things online and came across material relating to the forthcoming release of a second expansion pack, this one entitled Wrath Of The Lich King. So a few months prior to the release of this expansion pack, I resumed playing and reacquainted myself with a few of the people I had met there earlier and were also still playing. I also picked up the pace a lot in terms of creating “alts”.
The Wrath Of The Lich King period brought about a number of changes to the game, most of which were an improvement. But that was severely tempered by the fact that Wrath Of The Lich King had not even been out for a whole year before a third expansion, simply titled Cataclysm, was announced as scheduled for release “soon”. It was a real slap in the face to players, not least because it has so far set a model that Blizzard seem to be regarding as the way for the future. Release an expansion, regardless of whether it is ready or not, every two years, and make those eleven million subscribers pay fifty dollars for it without any real option of refusal. But I am getting ahead of myself a bit here. Let me wind it back for a second.
As I said, Blizzard made a lot of changes to the structure of World Of Warcraft during the Wrath Of The Lich King period. A very frequently-made complaint about the game prior to these changes was the inaccessibility of long-term content. In this context, long-term content means things like higher-level dungeons where pieces of gear that enable the player to get into even higher-level dungeons can be obtained. In The Burning Crusade, organising a run through a dungeon involved a lot of malarkey in finding five people, getting them to the entrance of the dungeon, and coordinating them through the dungeon’s length. A massive problem when one player is still struggling to understand the “rules” of the game. So Blizzard did one smart thing and introduced a system through which players could get into dungeons with randomly-assorted groups. Of course, in situations where a player lacks the understanding necessary to play their role effectively, this can be less helpful than desired, but it is a massive improvement.
So now there are plans to release a fourth expansion for the game. Read that over a couple of times and let it sink in. In the 1990s, when videogames were still being distributed on floppy discs (yes, I am that old), games like Wing Commander were considered overly expanded with two expansion packs that merely added a few new missions. That is four expansions and an original game in a period of eight years. As a point of comparison, Dungeons & Dragons, the tabletop game, was thirty-four years old when the fourth “edition” proper was released to the public. And the so-called 3.5 edition attracted a lot of controversy because it was quite clearly released only with the purpose of extracting more money in mind.
Blizzard has no other goal than extracting a lot of money from subscribers to their flagship game in mind when they make a decision these days. Sometimes, the goal of extracting all of this money and promoting a good game coincide. But as so often happens in an unregulated market where the dirtiest player is often the strongest one, Blizzard do not care about the actual needs of the player unless two things happen. One, these needs coincide with whatever Blizzard feel like doing at a given point. Two, Blizzard get a sense that responding to the customers’ stated need will keep their profit margin up. Whilst running the MMORPG with the most subscribers is indeed a profitable endeavour, it must be borne in mind that running all of the servers and technical support teams necessary to retain so many customers effectively is an expensive endeavour. So whilst there is a certain level of willingness and desire to cooperate with customer wishes, it would be a lot greater if Blizzard had any semblance of meaningful competition in their market. We need an antitrust crackdown in the software market, on so many levels, like a growing boy needs his lunch.
So clearly, I have a lot of conflicts about my continued passing of time by playing this aggravating, high maintenance game. Whether I am still playing in six to twelve months depends a lot on whether the people I play it to stay in contact with are still playing. So if you have read up to this point, and are not playing the game already, please do not start. There are better things in life.
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